Blade Runner is the 1982 sci-fi film, directed by Ridley Scott, that bombed when it first came out but went on to become a cult classic on the then-new home video market. It was Scott’s immediate follow-up to Alien, which was itself following up the historical epic The Duelists, showing the world that this weird British dude was no one-trick pony and there was no chance he’d spend his golden years stuck in an aggravating rut.
Blade Runner also introduce the wider, movie-going world to award-winning, but perpetually struggling, sci-fi author Philip K. Dick, who unfortunately died three months before the movie premiered, ending a life that we, his fans, consider far too short and Dick would probably consider too long…but then again, time is an illusion. It actually stopped in the 1st century A.D. – we just think it continued marching forward thanks to the machinations of what the Gnostics called “the Demiurge.” The Empire never ended. It is all around us, even now.
But never mind that now. Forces within Hollywood started trying to make a movie out of his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep the moment it got published in 1968, and it’s pretty easy to see why: at the heart of the story, there’s a cop whose whole job consists of summarily executing suspects on the street, and what could be more appealing to the American movie-going public than that?
Evil Me: My…aren’t we cynical today?
Yeah, ya know…it’s almost like I’m discussing some kind of dystopian sci-fi story. Set in a future where cities span the whole horizon, spewing toxic flames and vapid ads into an already-poisoned sky. Where corporations lord over us from their massive ziggurats, which are the only place you can still reliably see the sun. Where life itself is worth significantly less than those corporation’s latest, greatest product, and “if you’re not cop, you’re little people,” as the head-cop says to our protagonist. Everybody gives Star Trek credit for predicting cell phones, but Dick predicted so much more, it’s actually terrifying. I was re-reading Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich last year (because Palmer Eldrich is now the president of my country) and there’s a throwaway line in there about how Antarctica has become the last vacation destination on Earth, since global warming and the lack of ozone layer combined to make it the only place that’s not 200 degrees Fahrenheit by noon. You read that, and then you read news stories about chunks of ice the side of Rhode Island floating steadily northward, and you think, “Well, we’re all fucked – might as well stay indoors and watch some movies.”
In a lot of ways, this film and Dick’s book are polar opposites – which is why I’m kinda happy they don’t share the same title. (Except every decade or so, when Dick’s publishers release an edition that does for the name recognition.) Dick did not trust the machine, for very good and proper reasons. Quoth the Brundlefly, “Computers are stupid – they only know what you tell them.” And how the hell are you going to tell them how to have empathy for other beings when we humans have struggled with that for our entire recorded history – and failed at it spectacularly, by most accounts? Ah, but in the machine – the android, the replicant, whatever you want to call them – Ridley Scott saw beings as much, if not more, capable of empathy than most humans…and more deserving of it, certainly…under the right circumstances.
Ash, the “goddamn robot” from Alien, was the real villain of that piece, undeserving of our empathy. And like every shit-eating, company man throughout time, he gave his worthless sympathies to the rest of the cast at the eleventh hour, and got justly flamed for it. He was more of a Dickian android than any of the replicants in this flick.
But while they may have taken the text to an entirely different place, Ridley Scott, screenwriters Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, and everyone else who contributed bits and pieces to this film (i.e., the entire cast), did manage to capture the essence of Philip K. Dick’s subtext. I hope this is what Dick saw in the early versions of the film he viewed before a stroke (or a vast, intergalactic and extratemporal conspiracy) carried him out of this world. Unlike most of his contemporaries (who dipped a toe into the pool every once in a while), Dick was obsessed with down-right existential questions pretty much all the time. What does it mean to be human in a world as fucked-up and weird as ours? How do we go about figuring that out? With our senses? Can we even trust the information they’re feeding us? If not, how in Dante’s Hell are we going to figure out the nature of life, the universe, god, or…hell, anything? And even if we did, could our puny, human minds handle the answers? Probably not…
As the opening text crawl we don’t really need informs us, a Blade Runner is a cop whose sole job involves hunting down and “retiring” artificial people. Though their use for shit jobs – like manual labor, mercenary work, or sex work…which is both manual and mercenary – has become widespread in the off-world colonies, their presence on Earth got outlawed after an uprising several years before our story opens. Our titular Blade Runner is one Rick Deckard, LAPD. He starts the story retired but, in true Cop Drama tradition, his superior drags him back to work a case that’s already cost them one cop. A group of replicants – led by combat model Roy Batty – staged their own rebellion some months ago and now they’ve come to Earth for reasons Deckard must figure out.
It’s not that hard, really. Especially not if you know about Philip K. Dick’s other major thematic obsession: religion. Especially those esoteric off-shoots of Christianity that sprang up in the three centuries before the Council of Nicaea hammered the Bible into its current shape. Our Boy Roy’s quest is a straight-up Gnostic quest to ask storm Heaven and ask God, “What the hell, man? What the Actual Hell?” Like V’Ger in the first Star Trek movie, his questions are as existential as they come: “is this all that I am? Is there nothing more?” And like Frankenstein’s Creature, he finds his Creator to be little more than a rich dumbass with no real idea of what he’s done. You have to be extra thick – in the old school sense of the word – to create a new race of slaves and then act surprised when they start chafing at their condition. And the true horror of it is, Eldon Tyrell – the replicant’s creator – isn’t even all that surprised. He’s already hard at work on the next generation, and these will come complete with their own fake memories. To give them “a cushion,” to rest their otherwise young and inexperienced emotions on, he says…though in the next breath he also says fake memories will make them “easier to control.” Like his assistant, Rachel…a replicant with the memories of his niece. Like everything else Tyrell’s done, this plan works out so well, Rachel immediately flees from him the moment she starts to suspect she might not be “real.”
As Roy says to Deckard near the end, “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.” And you don’t need to get chased through an abandoned apartment building by a pissed-off combat replicant to feel something like that. There’s a French word for that sinking sensation in your stomach/liver area, and it’s “recognition.” After all, Deckard’s no Dirty Harry. He’s basically press-ganged into this job. That’s what the implicit threat about “if you’re not cop, you’re little people,” means.
So Deckard takes this job under implicit threat and because he seems to have no life outside it. Like many a person manufactured the old-fashioned way, his whole life is defined by his job, the social role it fills, and the meager social capital it grants him. When a patrol car floats down to his level he can recite an incantation powerful enough to make ’em disappear: his badge number. The rest of his is consumed by consuming whiskey in his shit apartment. While it might be spacious as hell, it also looks like it would fit right into the Nostromo, covered in the debris of a life barely lived. In the book, Rachel calls herself and her fellow replicants “reflex-machines,” and, in another reversal of Dickian cynicism, Ridley Scott et. al. seem to cast Deckard in that role. How alive can you be when your whole live revolves around taking the lives of others? What can even make you feel alive?
Evil Me: Well, you could always try sex.
Ding-ding-ding! We have a winner. Nobody can say this picture doesn’t have “love interest,” in the most literal sense. But because one side of this budding relationship is an emotionally-repressed state-sponsored murderer and the other just found out their entire life is a corporate-sponsored lie, laser-tattooed onto their brain, it’s one of the saddest bits of “love interest” in all of SF. Two people – neither even close to being in A Good Place – pawing at each other on the desperate chance they might feel something other than self-loathing, even for a second.
Evil Me: Sounds like a fun way to spend a summer evening.
Yeah…it’s not hard to see why this bombed. E.T. had just debuted the week before, and was already becoming the most popular film of the year. Wrath of Kahn and Poltergeist came out the week before that, while Road Warrior, Rocky III, and Conan the Barbarian were all still in theaters at the time. What’s a contemplative, existential, neo-noir sci-fi flick to do against all that? It got sold to the public as an action adventure flick – another Harrison Ford vehicle, the year after Raiders of the Lost Ark. And lo, the people found themselves confronted with long, sweeping shots of a blighted urban hellscape and a fist-full of questions that’ve confounded our greatest philosophers…and reacted, mostly, with boredom.
They still do. Obviously, the internet is full of contrarian assholes who’re all too happy to tell you why the movies you love are all boring, over-rated pieces of shit. And yes, all the walls of my house did just turn into glass for a second. On the flip-side, you have all the elitist superfans who’ll gladly shit on anyone who doesn’t instantly recognize Roy’s line, “Fiery the angels fell; deep thunder rolled around their shores; burning with the fires of Orc,” as a misquote from William Blake’s poem, “America: A Prophecy.” And between them you have the suits who are all too happy to look at this film’s lack of immediate success and go,
Evil Me: See? No one wants to watch ‘big’ ‘questions’ being contemplated by desperate weirdos in retro clothing. They want to watch explosions, caused by swashbuckling heroes, played by hot, young stars who are…not too hot. Or too young. Not hot or young enough to be intimidating. Or failing that, they want the treacly sentimentality of Spielberg.
So the suits took the most superficial aspects of this film – it’s production design, particularly the design of its LA megalopolis – and made that synonymous with dystopian sci-fi. For over two decades, until the coming of the Zombie Plague we’re still dealing with at the time of this writing, the future was an over-built, overcrowded mess, with constant rain sizzling off constantly buzzing neon lights. All under-girded by that shade of blue that’s too dark to be sky and too light to be sea….what would you even call that? Is that Cobalt? Azure? It’s too dark to be Celeste…ah, whatever. And fans. Big-ass industrial fans, everywhere! Whether you need them or not.
Evil Me: This is pointless. If your audience is at all film-literate, they will have already formed their opinions about Blade Runner years ago. And who do you think you are, that you could possibly change that? We both know they’re waiting for you to tackle the question of whether or not Deckard’s a replicant.
A.k.a, The Most Boring, Pointless Question in All of Sci-Fi Film Fandom. Here’s a movie that spends almost two hours telling us, “It doesn’t fucking matter whether you’re a replicant or not!” And yet the most impassioned section of its fan-base goes, “Yeah, but…is Deckard a replicant?” Madness!
Evil Me: Madness? This is film fandom! Pick a side in a binary argument or be Ignored to Death. Besides, without those impassioned fans, you’d still be watching the theatrical cut, listening to Harrison Ford’s bored voice.
That straight-up tells you how to feel about stuff by telling you how Deckard feels about stuff. Were test audiences in 1982 really so easily confused?
Evil Me: Need you ask such a question?
Yeah, fair enough. These days, the second most-frequently asked question about this movie is: Which, of the multiple versions that’ve become available since the early-90s should I watch? And as far as the film’s real messages are concerned, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t a Kingdom of Heaven or Batman v. Superman situation, where a whole subplot went missing in the test-audience phase. There’s one bit of gore that got cut for theaters and you’re not gonna find any robot titties in the TV cut. Duh. Thankfully, nowadays, you can buy, beg, borrow or steal “The Final Cut” eidition, which has all the professionally-made versions of the movie in one package, so you don’t even have to chose…another theme of the movie, now that I think about it. Binary dualities are stupid. These reviews always wind up resembling their subjects.
Evil Me: Is that why this became a scattershot mess?
Hey, you said, “Review Blade Runner.” You didn’t say which one. And the one you meant should be out by the time this goes live.
Evil Me: In the meantime, there’s another, more modern Ridley Scott film for you to tackle.
Oh, hell. You had to remind me, didn’t you…?
Evil Me: Happy New Year.